Hello and welcome to Chasing Dramas! The podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through Chinese TV dramas. This is Cathy, and this is Karen. Today we are discussing episode 12 of 后宫甄嬛传, Empresses in the Palace. Thanks to all of you who are joining us and listening to us on this podcast, we really appreciate all of your support!
In the last episode, 华妃 seems to be out of favor with the Emperor. She bullied her remaining ally 曹贵人 to help her come up with ideas as to how to regain favor, and in turn, regain power as second in command of 后宫，the imperial harem. You’ll recall that the trio of 甄嬛, 沈眉庄, and 安陵容 have had success in the last couple of episodes in dispatching their foes, first with 余答应 and now with 丽嫔.
Now onto our recap.
This episode is set in the summertime and you know what that means! Vacation! The Emperor 雍正, the Empress, 皇后, 甄嬛, and 沈眉庄 were enjoying some time together in the imperial palace or the forbidden palace when 曹贵人 arrives with her daughter. The Emperor, feeling that his daughter, the princess, has lost some weight, thinks that it’s time for a vacation at 圆明园 to avoid the heat in the Forbidden Palace. Think of it as going to the Hamptons if you live in Manhattan.
They can’t bring the full retinue of people from the imperial harem so the Emperor only brings the Empress, 甄嬛,沈眉庄，the mothers of his children, so 齐妃 who is the 3rd Prince’s mother, 曹贵人, the mother of this princess, 欣常在, who also has a princess, and in addition 敬嫔, and 端妃。Who is left out? 华妃 and 安陵容. Just in case you are confused as to the whirlwind of people I just named, we have yet to meet 端妃。BUT, if I’m honest, that feels like the entire 后宫, haha.
Upon hearing this plan, 曹贵人 immediately takes an elaborate gold hair accessory, called a 步摇， from her coiffure and dangles it in front of her daughter. The Emperor is reminded that he gifted this 步摇 to 华妃. 曹贵人 uses this opportunity to praise 华妃 a little bit. The Emperor, happy with this information, allows 华妃 to go too to the vacation home. The Empress, 皇后, definitely knew the significance of the accessory before 曹贵人 said anything and you see she’s disappointed, so are a 沈眉庄 and 甄嬛. Well, as of right now, it’s a done deal. 皇上made his decision.
Next, We get a brief shot of the entourage leave the Forbidden Palace. Notice the yellow bannermen at the very front. The yellow banners represent the Emperor, a nice little visual they included here. We haven’t really talked about banners in a few episodes but still, nice to see this show trying to be historically accurate. Everyone arrives at 圆明园，the old summer palace.
We’ll get into the history of this place.
This is the first time 甄嬛’s been to 圆明园 and she’s taking in the splendors of the place. The Eunuch are telling her about all the amenities she gets including a cooling fan and access to ice! (I must say that I really like 甄嬛’s coiffure right now!) 甄嬛 and her maid/half sister 浣碧 take a stroll around the gardens. An unknown object falls from the sky and the ladies go investigate. Someone shot down two pigeons with one arrow. (It’s hilarious – the pigeons are clearly still alive) The eunuch who comes to retrieve the pigeons responds that the 17th Prince, 果郡王, shot this down. 甄嬛 marvels at his marksmanship.
We cut to a scene with the Emperor 雍正 and 果郡王. 雍正 comments that 果郡王’s archery skills were taught by their father 康熙 himself. 果郡王 responds that the Emperor 雍正 was taught by the best Manchu warrior to which 雍正 brushes that fact away. He says, I was taught archery, you bonded with our father, he clearly favored you. That seems pretty harmless right? But upon hearing this 果郡王 immediately gets on his knees to say – it’s because of his favoritism that I am but a useless prince. 雍正 stares at him for a second and lifts him up. He seems happy with this answer and dismisses 果郡王.
This exchange was very dangerous for 果郡王. 雍正 was jealous of his brother’s favoritism. If 果郡王 gloated, he would have immediately lost his own favor with 雍正, or worse, his life. Our pancake face Emperor shows no emotion this scene, but the tension is there. 雍正, as we’ll see later on, is incredibly suspicious of anyone trying to claim power. Luckily, 果郡王 knows exactly what to say to gently brush off the comment and appease the Emperor. He’s one smart cookie.
Well we see another example of 雍正’s jealousy in the very next scene. 甄嬛 goes to greet the Emperor. 曹贵人 is also there. She’s team 华妃 so nothing good could come from this encounter. And we talked about this in the last episode, but 曹贵人, isn’t the prettiest person in the palace, but she is one of the smartest. We’ll very much deep dive into this scene so I’ll move on quickly right now. 曹贵人 keeps bringing up the 17th Prince 果郡王, even openly discussing the initial meeting between 甄嬛 and the Emperor. Remember, 雍正 pretended to be 果郡王 the first time the two met back in episode 7 i think?. You see 雍正’s face get darker and darker as 曹贵人 continues to say things like, it’s such a cute story! Seeing the damage done, 曹贵人 excuses herself and leaves 甄嬛 to deal with 雍正.
雍正 for some reason wants 甄嬛 to play the instrument on the table 古琴. We talked about 古琴 in episode 9. 甄嬛 just isn’t able to play well and 雍正 bluntly points out that something is on her mind. Of course she is! She’s extremely nervous! He then asks the question that was basically inceptioned into his mind from 曹贵人’s comments. When did she fall in love with him? His face looks dangerous. 甄嬛 has to do a LOT of quick thinking but she is able to get out her bind and mollify him.
Back at her quarters, 甄嬛 is perplexed as to how 曹贵人 could have known about her story with the Emperor. 瑾溪, her head maid, is with her and even she didn’t even know the story until just now. The only one who did know is 流珠, one of her maids from home. They conclude that she must have unknowingly let something slip while chatting with the other maids and someone overheard the conversation.
In the last episode, 沈眉庄 had the idea to achieve savings by cutting palace expenditures. This includes food for members of the 后宫. Well, 皇后 decides to implement this not only on herself but also on 华妃。 华妃 is understandably super pissed. She’s so cute, she’s like – there’s no meat! All I eat are cucumbers. We aren’t paupers! She directs her wrath at 沈眉庄. 沈眉庄 better watch out. [Discuss that 皇后 knows this]
沈眉庄 and 甄嬛 discuss the latter’s recent encounter with the Emperor and they agree that 曹贵人 is definitely not someone they should take lightly. 沈眉庄 has come to the conclusion that for them to really have a place in 后宫, they need to have children. Children are the most important thing to keeping a stable footing, and ultimately a future in the palace. She shows 甄嬛 a prescription that she received from an Imperial Doctor that supposedly will help her get pregnant. 甄嬛 is rightly suspicious but 沈眉庄 says she’s already confirmed that the prescription has been cross checked by other people. Well 温实处, 甄嬛’s doctor friend just so happens to be out of town, but a new doctor conveniently just pops up. 沈眉庄 invites him for a cup of tea.
The other concubines of the Imperial Harem are at the Empress 皇后’s place. There’s a lot of sniping between 华妃 and 齐妃, the mother of 雍正’s 3rd son. 华妃 snidely comments that the 4th Prince is here and the son of a lowly maid is already smarter than his older brother. A reminder on the 4th Prince. He was born to a maid after a drunken night. He’s been left here at 圆明园 because the Emperor doesn’t want his son around as a reminder of his “mistake”.
All of the concubines leave and a young boy pops out behind 剪秋, the Empress’s head maid . It’s the 4th Prince. He wants to greet the Empress and the Emperor but he’s gently turned away. 剪秋 returns to 皇后 and asks the Empress why she doesn’t raise the 4th prince. That is an option since 皇后 doesn’t have children. 皇后 immediately shoots down that idea because 皇上 really doesn’t like the 4th Prince. There’s no reason to do something that the Emperor won’t like. So the 4th Prince is all by himself.
The ladies are all out enjoying a stroll. 沈眉庄 is singing the praises of the new doctor. They bump into 曹贵人，齐妃, and 欣嫔. A pretty neutral party. 曹贵人 immediately jumps at the opportunity to invite 甄嬛 and 沈眉庄 to “apologize” for her earlier comments. They reluctantly agree.
It’s nighttime and the ladies have spent an enjoyable evening. 沈眉庄 has a convulsing reaction to a certain soup. All the ladies are “worried”. They ask her for her symptoms. She hasn’t had an appetite for a few days. Her period is late, she feels lazy, she wants to eat spicy food. What does this sound like? She could be pregnant! They quickly call for a doctor. But what is that smirk on 曹贵人’s face? She does seem to be more eager than the rest…
The episode ends with the Emperor and Empress all rushing to 曹贵人’s quarters. The doctor performs his diagnosis and confirms that 沈眉庄 is pregnant. Everyone is ecstatic at the news. 沈眉庄 cannot contain her happiness. It seems like all her work paid off.
So yay! We have a happy episode ending.
Let’s now dive into our analysis.
Let’s first talk about 圆明园. This is the old summer palace. It’s in the northwest of Beijing, only about 5 miles away from the Imperial Palace. Construction began around 1709 and one of the gardens was gifted to 雍正 from his father. When 雍正 ascended the throne, he significantly expanded 圆明园, including building palace quarters to hold court. Emperors after 雍正 regularly vacationed here. Indeed, his son 乾隆 mainly held court here at 圆明园 instead of the Forbidden Palace. Emperors after 雍正 continuously added to 圆明园, adding their own touches here and there. This summer palace was favored by royals over the other Summer Palace that we know as 颐和园.
It covers 3.5 square kilometers and had hundreds of structures including pavilions, temples, galleries etc. Thousands of pieces of artwork and books were stored here. 圆明园 is famous for its gardens and the Imperial Gardens are made up of 3 gardens.
Garden of Perfect Brightness (圆明园; 圓明園; Yuánmíng Yuán)
Garden of Eternal Spring (长春园; 長春園; Chángchūn Yuán)
Garden of Elegant Spring (绮春园; 綺春園; Qǐchūn Yuán)
Once known as the Versaille of the East. It was once the largest museum and art gallery in the world, with many treasures including full copies of 四库全书 Imperial Collection of Four and 古今图书集成, the Imperial Encyclopedia. There were over 100 bridges and gardens. Water was a major theme and water made up more than 50% of the space. Many of the halls, pavilions, and gardens were inspired by traditional myths and legends. The architects also created replicas of famous landmarks throughout the empire, including the 西湖十景 or Ten Views on Xi Hu in 杭州, a city in Southeast China.
Notice how I’m using past tense here. 圆明园, once the crown jewel of the Qing dynasty, was sacked during the 2nd Opium War in 1860. The French and British forces looted almost everything from the summer palace. In 1873, Emperor 同治 tried to repair 圆明园 but there wasn’t enough funds in the Imperial Treasury to fund the project. 圆明园 was completely destroyed in 1900 during the Siege of the International Legations. The ruins are still in Beijing and you can go visit them. You’ll see the remains of various types of architecture, interestingly enough many western style buildings were commissioned throughout the years. These were commissioned under Emperor 乾隆 in 1747 and copied the Baroque style. Since 1996, there have been 3 large excavations of the site for research and will continue to 2020.
During its 150 year history, it was a beacon of Chinese architecture, history, and genius. There are efforts today to repair the place but it’s just too costly. The drama obviously didn’t film on location as some still do when filming the other Summer Palace 颐和园。
Enough of history – let’s dive deep into the crux of the episode. 雍正 and his jealousy? Paranoia?
There are two scenes in this episode that show this. The first is with 雍正 and his brother, the 17th Prince, 果郡王, and the second is with 雍正, 甄嬛, and 曹贵人. We already discussed the former scene. Let’s get into the details of the latter. 雍正, 甄嬛, and 曹贵人 are enjoying some tea that the 17th Prince, 果郡王, brought.
甄嬛 mistakenly brings up the pigeons that 果郡王 shot and wonders where he is. Let’s keep in mind that 雍正 is still somewhat salty with the earlier encounter. 曹贵人 is still ok at this point. She peels a grape for 雍正 to eat but he ignores her. I think she gets annoyed and directs her next attack at 甄嬛. She openly discusses what she knows about 甄嬛 and the Emperor’s first meeting. 雍正 pretended to be the 17th Prince 果郡王 and that’s ho w they originally met. They should thank him for their happiness right now. She says, 果郡王’s reputation precedes him. He’s handsome and talented. All of the ladies in Beijing are mad about him. 甄嬛 – you must have heard of him?
With this, the seeds of suspicion are planted in 雍正’s mind. This is very dangerous – did 甄嬛 fall in love with him or his brother? 雍正 is in his 40s right now. Obviously not as dashing as his younger brother. He refuses to let anyone usurp him, not even in his harem. 甄嬛 can feel the Emperor’s gaze and immediately says – “I was always at home before entering the palace and was sick for a long time so no I haven’t heard of him”. That seems alright and there’s a moment where YongZheng seems fine. But then 甄嬛 just had to say – “The Emperor’s talents are unparalleled. Is this how you won the favor of the other ladies?” Not good – this was a special encounter for the Emperor and she sort of just belittled this fact. 曹贵人, seeing her damage is done excuses herself.
甄嬛 has to do a lot of quick thinking – NEED TO FINISH THE SCENE
I will sing the praises of the actor 陈建斌. He conveys SO much without even changing his expression, it’s only when he breaks for a laugh does it change.
The last thing we want to discuss today is 皇后. We finally have more evidence of just how cunning she is and how she’s always calculating despite her outward appearance of serenity and poise. We see that twice in this episode. The first is the whole situation of cutting palace expenditures. Without missing a beat, she tells the Imperial Kitchens to reduce meat portions for the ladies of the Imperial Palace. She, 华妃, and 齐妃 shall lead by example. She then says, make sure everyone knows it’s 沈眉庄’s idea. I don’t want to steal her credit. The Empress 皇后 easily ticks 华妃 off. She knows how spoiled 华妃 is and this puts all the blame on 沈眉庄. Indeed in the next episode, 华妃 directs her fury on her instead of 皇后。
The second example is 皇后’s reaction to the 4th Prince. We’ve heard so far that the 4th prince is an exceptionally bright and respectful young boy. It’s not uncommon for other concubines and even the Empress to adopt princes and princesses. 皇后 doesn’t have children and her maid 剪秋 suggests adopting the 4th prince. She’ll have something to do. She quickly rejects the idea. The 4th Prince is not favored – there’s no point wasting time on him. 皇后 knows about the intricacies of 后宫. She analyzes every move she makes, basically making a cost benefit analysis. As the Empress, she has to play the long game. She must weigh every outcome – 沈眉庄 is still too green.
Well it seems like Shen Mei Zhuang got her wish. She’s pregnant! That’s what every lady in the Imperial Palace hopes for! Somehow cao gui ren knows a lot about zhen huan? How? We’ll learn what happens in the next episodes.
Thank you so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed this episode as much as we enjoyed discussing it! As always, if you have any questions/comments, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you with us in the next episode!